In the early throes of your career, demanding clients with highly specified briefs can seem far more trouble than they are worth. I initially would be far more interested in the clients who offered creative freedom, but looking back, I believe I was wrong to do so. I'll explain why.
Both in the early days of my career and right up to the very day I write this, I have had clients who have given me enormous creative freedom with their work. It's enjoyable and I often create some of my best images as I strive to create unique results every time. Even though it's not essential, I do my best to push myself to achieve better and better work, but it's not possible for me to push myself as much as a demanding client will.
Firstly, I ought to unpack what I mean by a "demanding" client. I'm certainly not talking about those companies or people who want unlimited re-edits and to bleed you for every penny they spent. This isn't an ode to taskmasters and tyrants, but rather to those thoroughly organized and visionary employers who know exactly what they want and care not for how difficult it may be to achieve. So, what are the perks of working for such demanding and high-pressure clients?
Perk One: Self-Progression
This is number one both chronologically and arguably in order of importance. While clients who offer complete creative freedom provide the opportunity for you to try new techniques and push yourself, demanding clients force you to do so. They will also, by extension, force you down paths you probably wouldn't have taken. For example, a brand I work with have (unknowingly) developed a checklist of things that must be in the image. Some of them are obvious (focus, colors, background, and so on), but there are many that forced serious problem-solving to attain. For a recent shoot, they wanted their product to be shot from below, at an angle that could only be achieved by me suspending said product with fishing wire and using five different lights to achieve the type of exposure they wanted. If I go back to them with anything not up to scratch, they'll highlight it with a red marker in Paint to be fixed. Sometimes, it takes a little bit of editing; sometimes, it takes a reshoot.
Over time, I have learned what it is they require and have become accustomed to their incredibly high standards. As a result, only small changes are ever asked for, but when a big campaign comes along, I get provided a brief with a wealth of challenges. Overcoming these problems improves my technical and creative abilities every time and provides invaluable experience applicable to my other work. But there is a related perk too.
Perk Two: Repeat Business
As any self-employed business owner, repeat business is highly desirable. Invariably, it comes to you, it requires nowhere near the same amount of small talk and arrangements a new client does, and the client knows what to expect from you. Getting repeat business, however, requires dedication and reliability, but believe it or not, demanding clients make it easier. I'll explain how.
The brand I'm speaking about above has gone through a lot of back and forth with me. Many of my images they're happy with and we move on, but images they want for print campaigns, advertising, or flagship images, well, they require incredible attention to detail. As I said, this "checklist" we have developed together is now part of my workflow, and every time I return an image now, the suggestions are minor if at all. Now, they tell me they need a certain type of image, I grab their product and I set up the bizarre lighting formation I have devised and start snapping. I'm confident — and I assure you this isn't arrogance — that no one will be able to grab one of their products and create exactly what they want first time. They're a complex brand who have a very specific vision it has taken us both time to build together.
My relationship with them is strong and that helps to keep them hiring me, but there's a security in appeasing demanding clients. Invariably, your clients will get approached by other photographers who will offer them work with a discount. They'll undercut you to take the job for themselves and will probably work hard to prove their worth. The problem with demanding clients is they have put in time with me and they would have to teach someone the ropes from scratch. So, not only do they have to try to gauge whether the work will be equal to or greater than me, then they have to gauge whether the price difference is worth the hassle of changing, which given their extensive requirements and tastes, it probably isn't. If you get a demanding client, work out solutions to the problems that stand between you and their dream shot, and then reap the rewards.
Perk Three: Gratification and Pride
This perk could too easily be undervalued, but it ought not to be. Perk three is twofold, non-monetary, and intangible: gratification and pride. Firstly, gratification — or satisfaction, it could be called — is the feeling you get when you please these demanding visionaries. We all know what it's like to have someone who praises everything you do: it's nice, but it doesn't mean that much to you after a while. However, if there's someone who calls you out every time you put out subpar work and expects more than you're confident you can deliver, their words of praise have high intrinsic value, underpinned by respect for their opinion. These demanding clients are exactly that. They are that mentor who just won't give you the pat on the back you've always dreamed of (just look at J.D and Cox), and then suddenly, they're impressed with what you have created for them. That level of emotional reward isn't to be scoffed at; it's the very thing most people don't ever get from their jobs and it leads to their unhappiness with their career choice. Believe me, I know.
The second branch of this perk is pride. Again, I can hear so many people's lackluster response to such a fluffy and difficult word to identify and define. But anyone with pride in their work will tell you it's invaluable. Being proud of what you're doing, be it work or otherwise, can undo so many wrongs and pitfalls surrounding it. I won't flesh out the value of pride any further, but if you're proud of what you're creating, you're doing something severely right.
What experiences have you had with demanding clients? Do you think they warrant a special place in the hearts of photographers, or are they more trouble than they're worth? Share your thoughts in the comments below.